Wireless Wandering - Leave Your Laptop Behind

by Charlie Schick

I made a bold decision—not to take my laptop on a week-long business trip. Instead, I brought along a collection of small devices to provide almost all of the functions normally required of my laptop. Sure, some concessions had to be made, but from a weight and bulk standpoint, it was worth it.

The case
My laptop is the center of my data universe—it contains all my files, applications, e-mails, contact info, and connections I need to carry out my daily work. When I travel, it is just a matter of bringing my laptop along and my whole office comes with me. And while on the road, whenever I find a jack, I can get online to send and receive e-mails and gather information. But the laptop weighs in at about 6 lbs. and is as big as a large coffee table picture book. Furthermore, the laptop's cost requires that either I carry it around or lock it up. Either way, I need to worry about a large device that is 6 lbs. of deadweight when not in use.

The solution
One solution would be to buy a smaller and lighter laptop. But this would still require periodic visits to power and telephone jacks. I realize that if the only obvious solution was to get a new device, then why not take a look at what I already had—a Palm PDA. A PalmVx is a small and light device. It has a ton of memory and, on the go, the PDA is quite useful for calendaring, contact management, and light note-taking. Add an OmniSky wireless modem to the PalmVx and you have a wireless device that allows you to manage e-mail, surf the web, and actually work anywhere—no power cord, no telephone cord. What's more, the PalmVx and OmniSky modem don't weigh much. I regularly carry them in my coat pocket opposite my cell phone. One more thing can be added to this collection—a keyboard. The Stowaway is a keyboard for the Palm PDA that folds up to a package the size of a deck of large cards. With this keyboard, I can actually write long notes or e-mails without cramping up.

In use
As I said before, I went on a week-long business trip to LA and San Francisco (I am based in Massachusetts). I was glad to have a wireless modem. Because I had spent the whole workday flying, I was able to check for e-mail while waiting for my connecting flight. In most cases, I responded from my seat on the plane (at the gate, of course). Normally, I would have had to wait until I reached the hotel, usually at the end of the day.

In terms of e-mail, the keyboard allowed me to respond at length to issues or to work on items I needed to edit. What’s more, via e-mail I was able to arrange two interviews in a shorter span of time than if I were only able to check e-mail once a day (from the hotel room). And in this case, I had a tight deadline.

I could do all this with the laptop, but only when near a phone jack. With this wireless handheld setup, I could send and receive e-mails from a cab or the show floor (I was in LA for InternetWorld). My interactivity with some folks was so normal that some thought I was still at home.

Tradeoffs
Obviously, I wasn't able to have desktop features with this mobile setup. Attachments to e-mails usually went unread, unless I could find a public terminal with the right applications. I could still surf the web, but the small screen only permitted so much, even though graphics were reduced in size. The keyboard and modem could not be used at the same time, since both use the Palm PDA serial port. Finally, the wireless modem required I be in a wireless coverage area. For example, when I went to New Orleans earlier in the year, I had to bring the laptop—there was no wireless coverage in that area.

But this mobile package was small and light. I could carry the modem and PDA in my pocket and pull out the keyboard when I needed to compose long documents. On the whole, the package weighs much less than 6 lbs., and is about the size of the War and Peace paperback novel when stacked. I consider the tradeoff worthwhile.

Cell phones and the future
In 6 months this article may already be outdated. Technologies such as Bluetooth® will allow users to dispense with the wireless modem. I expect users to have a Bluetooth-enabled PDA and cell phone. The PDA would then use the cell phone to connect to the net. This setup would cut down on the number of devices needed to stay connected while mobile. Also cellular phones will have much better coverage than the CDPD (OmniSky) network. Almost a year ago, I was using my PDA to check e-mail with an IR-enabled Ericsson I 888 GSM phone. Bluetooth will just make this easier. Indeed, Palm has promised to enable their PDAs for this mobile world. In the future, my PDA will be wirelessly connected to the net through my cell phone, which will be in my pocket. I'm looking forward to that.

Summary
With a PDA, wireless modem, and compact keyboard, I was able to temporarily leave my trusty laptop behind. There were tradeoffs in features and mobility, but the setup worked well enough for the short test period. Being someone who tries to be unencumbered and mobile, with the current state of technology the setup was ideal for me. But there are technologies on the near horizon that will make it even easier to leave your laptop behind.